James Knox Whittet was born and brought up in the Hebridean island of Islay where his father was the head gardener at Dunlossit Castle. Although he now lives in Norfolk, many of his poems are inspired by his Hebridean childhood. He was educated at Newbattle Abbey College and Cambridge University.
In 2004, his pamphlet, Seven Poems for Engraved Fishermen (Meniscus Press) was shortlisted for an award from the National Library of Scotland. In the same year, he received an award from the Society of Authors.
His anthology, 100 Island Poems was published in 2005 and was nominated by The Scotsman as one of the Books of the Year and received a major award from the Arts Council of England. A companion volume, Writers On Islands was published in 2008.
He won the George Crabbe Memorial Award in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2011. In 2009, he won the Neil Gunn Memorial Award for poetry and an award from Highland Arts.
In 2010, he recorded his spoken word CD, Dark Islands in Walpole Chapel. In 2012, he collaborated with a Scottish artist and photographer on an exhibition of of sonnets about the people and places of Islay called Voices And Images Of Islay. Also in 2012, his collection When Kafka Met Einstein was published.
He is a Hawthornden Fellow and former President of the Suffolk Poetry Society.
When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were and the souls of the dead from whom we sprang , come and shower upon us their riches and their spells: Marcel Proust.
I hold within myself everyone who has gone before,
they pile up like those beech leaves I burned as a child;
the neat heaps raked along the drive above Port Askaig,
the rows of fires reddening at dusk, the shiver of the sea
at high tide when dark waves threatened to overflow the pier.
The loose sheets of newspaper blown by sudden gusts
opening and closing like a secret volume of my past;
the sulphur of the match igniting into flames of remembrance.
In the darkness, those fires shone like stars and the lighthouse
on the skerry revolved its spaced lights like answering prayers.
Sometimes my dead father gazes out at me from oval mirrors,
I see soap suds ooze down his face with a shock of recognition.
I hear the scrape, scrape of his blunted Wilkinson Sword.
His eyes are less accusing than once they were, less disappointed
as though he stood looking down from some plateau of forgiveness.
We merge into each other and out again like those wavering
reflections we left on the surface of Loch Allen when we
dipped our varnished oars into peated water, raised them
to let fall globes of water like separate worlds, made translucent
by sudden shafts of sunlight which brushed monogamous swans.
I could never really talk to you, mother, when you were alive,
smoke signals might have been more effective than words.
I see you still standing behind the plate glass of that hospital
window, wrapped in your loosening blue dressing gown,
waving what was to be your last goodbye. How long did you go
on waving after my car had drifted out of the car park to join
the lighted flow? I recall you waving your flowered dish towel as
the ferry left the pier and passed below our white house perched
on the wooded cliff, your frantic towel shaking out rooks from beech
trees as I was moved towards the mainland of my childish dreams.
And you, darling, I seem to just miss you everywhere I go:
I step into rooms you have only recently exited, I catch
the perfume you’ve left behind. I crawl between sheets imprinted
with your body, I stretch into the oblivion of sleep listening
to the rhythm of your lost breaths. I cannot break free of the now
insubstantial figures my pasts, they cling to me like those cotton
winged seeds of fireweed which colonize sites of dereliction with blaze
after blaze of waving magenta which dances in wind and sunlight.
I move towards my future grasping the vein-less hands
of ghosts, not knowing if I lead or if I follow.
Copyright © 2014 James Knox Whittet